Cadillac Days Augusta National Leonard Kamsler 1967

The First Masters 

With the club in dire financial straits, the Augusta National Invitational Tournament is conceived

Part 3 | The Making of The Masters | The First Masters The Golfer's Journal Podcast

Editor’s note: This is part three of a five-part TGJ Podcast series which chronicles the origin, evolution and inner-workings of The Masters. You can find previously published episodes here. The series is voiced by David Owen and based on his best-selling book, The Making of the Masters. Below you can find a transcript of this entire episode.

Augusta National’s official opening took place in January 1933. Roberts and Grantland Rice arranged for a private train to bring members and prospective members from New York City to Augusta for a long weekend of golf. For a hundred dollars, a participant received a Pullman berth, a room at the Bon Air, all meals, local transportation, and three days of golf with Bobby Jones and Francis Ouimet, who had agreed to be on hand. The outing was fully subscribed—the hundred participants consisted mostly of New York businessmen, a few of whom brought their wives—but the golf was a disappointment. An article in the Augusta Chronicle described the fairways and greens that weekend as “soggy” and said that a planned competition was disrupted by “near freezing weather which came in with a cold rain.” On the first morning, some of the players returned to the hotel after playing just nine holes.Those who remained were served barbecued chicken and bootleg corn liquor in a cold, wet tent on the lawn near the old manor house, which was not yet fit for entertaining.

Roberts had had high hopes for the train party. Two months before, he had enthusiastically described the idea to a representative of Olmsted Bros. and asked if the firm might be able to help him obtain an additional train car, which would leave from Boston and join the train in New York. But the party didn’t live up to his expectations. It didn’t lose money—in fact, at the end there was a small cash surplus, which Roberts distributed as tips to the crew of the train—but it failed in its larger purpose, which was to drum up interest in the club. Only one of the guests, a New Yorker named Frank Willard, signed on as a member. Willard was the head of F. A. Willard & Co., the New York investment banking firm that had been the source of Roberts’s breakthrough $55,000 commission in 1929. Willard joined the club largely as a favor to Roberts, and, according to a club member who knew both men, he helped to support Roberts financially during Roberts’s lean years in the thirties. Willard’s firm merged with Reynolds & Co. in 1934. It was most likely through his acquaintance with Willard that Roberts went to work at Reynolds. Willard’s three-hundred-fifty-dollar initiation check covered the club’s operating expenses for about ten days.

The weather grew worse when the party ended, and so did the near-term prospects of the club. “At the present moment,” Roberts wrote from Augusta the following month, “the trees are covered with ice and we might just as well be in Canada as far as playing golf is concerned.” That meant, among other things, that until the weather improved there would be no revenue from guest fees. Nor was there any interest in the building lots, which couldn’t be shown anyway, because the poor weather made it impossible to get to them. 

Roberts had reshaped his entire career for the Augusta project, and he couldn’t understand why it wasn’t getting off the ground. The train-party crowd was generally well heeled—a newspaper reporter marveled that the club’s secretary had had to send out for change because fifteen of the participants used hundred dollar bills to pay for purchases in the golf shop—but by 1933, golf had become a luxury that even corporate chairmen had difficulty justifying. In March, Roberts sent a gloomy letter to Jones from a hotel room in Augusta. “If we were able to dispose of some memberships we could apply the entire proceeds to the reduction of debts,” he wrote, “but at the moment I do not see a chance of securing a single membership check. All available funds have been used up, and we are operating on a ‘hand to mouth’ basis. I mean by this that we are using the daily green fees collection to meet our labor payroll on a currency basis.” On a good day, a dozen golfers with guest cards might drop by to play—producing total revenues of forty-eight dollars. If it rained, the revenues were zero.

“There is one other factor that it may be worthwhile to consider,” Roberts continued. “I have devoted all my time to the interests of the club during the past two years, but after the close of this season, I do not see how I shall be able to continue to do so. I have just been checking over my personal records and I find that in addition to the cash that I have advanced the club, I have, since I started work on this proposition, used up personal funds to the extent of nearly thirty thousand dollars. The time has now arrived when I will need to busy myself with the task of replenishing my own bank account.”

The $30,000 that Roberts had spent during the formation of the club represented essentially all the money he had managed to save since coming to New York. If he wasn’t broke, he was close; the Depression had hit him very hard. (In contrast, Jones’s income between 1931 and 1933 added up to nearly $300,000.) By early 1933, Roberts had made himself a stranger on Wall Street, where, admittedly, there would have been little for him to do. In a ledger, he kept track of expenses he incurred in the service of the club: thirty-six cents for pencils for the golf course; ten cents for a bellboy at the Bon Air; five dollars for his regular maid; a dollar and a half for postage; fifteen cents for (appropriately) a bottle of red ink. The club’s prospects were steadily eroding, a dime and quarter at a time.

By late March, a full listing of the club’s debts filled two and a half single-spaced typewritten pages, and Roberts was forced to prepare a grim letter to the creditors. “The Augusta National is embarrassed,” he wrote, ” … by current debts amounting to approximately thirty-one thousand ($31,000) dollars.” Roberts believed that he had identified at least five hundred solid membership prospects, all of whom had played the course, but he said that he had no hope of signing up any of them soon, now that Augusta’s brief playing season was drawing to a close. “The Augusta National is obligated on a sixty thousand ($60,000) dollar mortgage which covers the golf course, club house, and grounds,” he continued. “If trouble is made by any owner of current obligations, this mortgage will be foreclosed, the enterprise wrecked, and the sponsorship of Mr. Jones will be lost. In the interest of all concerned, we propose to the creditors a Stand-Still-Agreement ending April 15, 1934.”

This was, it should be noted, a form letter. The club’s situation was so precarious that even small bills had long gone unpaid. (The club owed $5.85 to Augusta Grocery Co. for toilet paper and $1.37 to Stumpp & Walter Co. for hose nozzles.) Roberts explained to one of the club’s more understanding providers that he had written the letter because he had wanted to avoid “the temptation to pay out any available funds to such creditors as are causing the club the most annoyance.” Any new cash, he explained, would be disbursed on a pro rata basis. In December, he found two dollars on the floor, and the sum was duly entered on the credit side of the club’s ledger.

Roberts was even grimmer in a letter to Jones. He confided that any one of the club’s larger creditors could ruin the club simply by insisting on payment. “The only thing that discourages such action,” Roberts wrote, “is the fact that these creditors would obtain nothing by bankruptcy proceedings.”

The steady succession of setbacks must have been agonizing for Roberts. He can’t help but have been reminded of his father’s chain of disappointments and business failures, and he must have been tormented by a fear that he might not be able to deliver what he had promised to the early members, the underwriters, and Jones. After a brief triumph in New York, he now found himself trapped again in an economic crisis. The sole consolation must have been his knowledge that, whatever disasters might await him in the coming months, he had nonetheless accomplished the most important of his goals: he had managed to build a golf course for Bobby Jones.

In February 1933, one month after the train party, Prescott S. Bush—whose second child, George (then eight years old), would one day be elected president of the United States—played two rounds at Augusta National Golf Club. Bush was a Wall Street lawyer and the chairman of the tournament committee of the United States Golf Association, American golf’s main governing body and rule-making organization, and the sponsor of the U.S. Open and Amateur championships. (His wife’s father, George H. Walker, had been the president of the U.S.G.A. in 1920 and is the man after whom the Walker Cup was named.) Not long after Bush’s round, Roberts, in a letter to a club member named Charles H. Sabin, wrote that Bush had “made the suggestion that [Augusta National] might be used for the U.S. Open Championship in 1934.” In his book about the club, Roberts said that the idea of hosting the Open had first arisen in late 1932—a few months before Bush’s visit. If that’s the case, then Bush’s “suggestion” may in fact have been suggested to him by Roberts, who had sent Bush a guest card in January and invited him to play. In any event, the club was interested.

By 1933, neither the Open nor the Amateur—the two biggest tournaments conducted by the U.S.G.A.—had ever been held farther south than Illinois. Jones had long wanted to redress that geographical imbalance, and his desire to do so was one reason he had wanted to build a course of his own. Augusta National had been conceived from the beginning as a venue where championships might one day be held. Bush later told Roberts that he would call a special meeting of the U.S.G.A.’s executive committee to discuss the matter. Roberts was delighted.

Under ordinary circumstances, Roberts almost certainly would have preferred to wait a few years before attempting to conduct a big tournament. The course had been playable for just six months, the layout still needed what Roberts optimistically called “finishing touches,” and the clubhouse and other facilities were rudimentary at best. But hosting the Open might accomplish something that Roberts and Jones had thus far been unable to accomplish on their own: It might attract enough new members to keep the club alive. Roberts also hoped that the U.S.G.A. would put up some money for course improvements before the tournament, enabling the club to partly compensate MacKenzie for what it owed him by offering him additional design work. “I do not need to tell you,” Roberts wrote to Sabin, “that the event would naturally benefit in every way the Augusta National Golf Club.” A few days later, Roberts asked Grantland Rice to press the club’s case with various U.S.G.A. officials. “I will also ask Bob to communicate with these people,” Roberts wrote, “and if it becomes necessary, Bob and I will get on the train and go to see anyone that may be hesitant about the matter.”

In later years, Roberts suggested that the idea of hosting the Open had been one that the club did not strenuously pursue. “Bob was intrigued with the idea,” he wrote in his book, “but, after much thought and a number of meetings, it was decided that our club could render a more important service to the game of golf by holding regularly a tournament of its own.” That account gives no sense of the intensive lobbying that went on; Roberts and Jones wanted the Open badly. In the end, though, the U.S.G.A. was not persuaded. On April 13, Herbert Jaques, the organization’s president, replied by letter that “whereas we are all favorably inclined to this move in the near future, we do not think it is practical to attempt in 1934.”

There were, indeed, numerous obstacles. An Open in Augusta would have to be held in late March or early April, when the weather was at its best and the local resorts still had guests. That was roughly three months ahead of the Open’s usual dates. To accommodate the change, the U.S.G.A.’s system of sectional qualifying would have to be drastically revised. The Professional Golfers’ Association—an organization of club pros and touring players—in those days sponsored a handful of tournaments in the Southeast in February and March, and Jaques acknowledged that Augusta would be a convenient stop for pros returning north after competing in those events. But he pointed out that a springtime Open in Augusta “would present difficulties to a Professional holding a berth at a Northern course, who did not go South, in that he would have to make some other arrangement about preparing his game and go to no little expense to do so.” The professional tour in those days was not what it is today. More than a few pros—from the South as well as the North—had to turn down invitations to play in early Masters Tournaments because they could not afford to take time away from their club jobs at that time of year.

Roberts was deeply disappointed by the U.S.G.A.’s decision; he needed tournament headlines as soon as possible. Within a short time, though, he came up with a new idea: the club could hold a tournament of its own. A private event wouldn’t have the automatic appeal of the Open, but it might still attract notice, bring in revenues, lure some new members, and help to extend the patience of the club’s financial backers—an increasingly urgent necessity. In a letter seeking an emergency contribution from Alfred Bourne, who from the beginning had been one of the club’s most generous benefactors, he explained why the U.S.G.A.’s rejection might eventually work to the benefit of the club. Augusta National didn’t need the Open, Roberts wrote, because “the tournament we are planning will do a great deal more for our club, especially since it would be a regular annual event.”

Roberts now devoted to the new tournament the same energy with which he had courted the Open. In the fall of 1933, he formally announced his plan to the P.G.A., which shortly afterward released its tournament schedule for the coming season. The schedule listed ten winter events, most of them in California, and described entry fees, prize money, and the availability of hotel rooms for competitors. (The richest of the events was the now long-defunct Miami Biltmore Open, which had a purse of $10,000 and paid an unheard-of forty places. More typical was the National Capital Open, held in Bethesda, Maryland, which paid just twelve places, including a first prize of six hundred dollars.) In a brief note at the end of the schedule, the P.G.A. mentioned a handful of other events, about which less information was available: “There are four tournaments already scheduled for the spring season,” the release said, “at Columbus, Georgia, dates not yet set, and for Charleston, South Carolina, on March 15, 16, and 17, Augusta National Golf course, March 22, 23, 24 and 25, and the North and South Open at Pinehurst, March 27, 28 and 29. Details of these events will be given when completed.” That brief notice contained the first official mention of the tournament that would become the Masters.

Although a private tournament would be highly unlikely to attract the interest that an Open would, there were several big advantages to Roberts’s new plan. The biggest one, he quickly realized, was that Jones might be persuaded to play. With Jones in the field, the new tournament would instantly become the most talked-about golf event of the year.

There would have been no possibility of Jones’s playing in an Open. In order to do so, he would have had to “turn professional” as a player—an idea he abhorred—because by U.S.G.A. rules he was no longer an amateur. At the time of Jones’s retirement from competition late in 1930, Warner Bros. hired him to make instructional films, and shortly after that, A. G. Spalding & Bros. hired him to design and promote golf clubs. (Those business opportunities represented a powerful inducement to stop playing competitive golf. Jones’s golf-related income in 1933, when the first tournament was being planned, was over $100,000; in contrast, Paul Runyan, who won nine events that year and was the tour’s leading money-winner, had gross tournament earnings of less than $6,500.) Upon signing with Warner Bros., Jones had written, “I am not certain that the step I am taking is in a strict sense a violation of the amateur rule. I think a lot might be said on either side. But I am so far convinced that it is contrary to the spirit of amateurism that I am prepared to accept and even endorse a ruling that it is an infringement.” This had been a potentially inflammatory issue in 1930, and he did not want to visit it again.

There was probably a touch of snobbery in Jones’s antipathy to being called a professional; in a letter to Roberts many years later, he described the typical pro as “an uneducated club servant” —a point of view he might well have formed in the days when only amateur competitors were accorded the honorific Mr., professional golfers often weren’t allowed to set foot inside clubhouses, and tournament organizers distinguished between “gentlemen” and “players.” He wrote in 1960 that he had no contempt for what he called “an honest professionalism,” thereby conveying nearly the opposite message. “So long as I played as an amateur, there could be no question of subterfuge or concealment,” he wrote. Roberts purposely dodged the issue by making no distinction between amateurs and professionals in program listings and pairing sheets—a distinction that was invariably noted elsewhere.

Would Jones have played in the club’s tournament if the club had been compelled to label him explicitly as a professional? Roberts said in later years that he suspected Jones probably would have played regardless, in order to help the club. But he was uncertain enough that he never raised the matter with him, either then or later. (In Golf Is My Game, Jones wrote that to give up his amateur status would have been “like giving up part of myself.”) The club today, in its tournament records, treats Jones as an amateur, but at the time no one did. The Associated Press and other news organizations listed him with the professionals. Even O.B. Keeler, who had built his sportswriting career by celebrating Jones’s amateur achievements, took it for granted that Jones was now a pro; he described Charles Yates, who finished three strokes behind him in the inaugural tournament, as the low amateur. (Yates is one of several distinguished amateur players who have been members of Augusta National. He won the British Amateur in 1938, and he competed in the first eleven Masters Tournaments. He and Jones became close friends, and used to play matches for a “willy rock”—their own term for a dollar bill. Yates is the last surviving Augusta National member who joined before the Second World War. He is believed to be the only person who has been present at every Masters since the beginning.)

Jones had another reason for not wanting to play: His game was, quite understandably, less sharp than it had been at the pinnacle of his career. He hadn’t competed since the 1930 Amateur, and he didn’t want to disappoint his fans with mediocre play. He told Roberts in no uncertain terms that he would like to leave the golf to others and serve the tournament merely as an “official.”

But the tournament absolutely had to have Jones in the field. Attracting top players to a small new tournament would have been far harder, if not impossible, without his participation, and so would selling tickets. Revenues at the 1930 U.S. Open, the third leg of Jones’s Grand Slam, had been double what they were the following year, after Jones had quit the game. At the 1930 Amateur, which was held at Merion, U.S.G.A. officials had entreated Jones to play a practice round the day before the competition—something he ordinarily didn’t like to do—so that they could sell more tickets and thereby further replenish their treasury, which had been ravaged by hard times. Without Jones, a new tournament in a small city in Georgia in the spring of 1934 would not have had a chance.

In the end, Roberts later wrote, the argument that persuaded Jones was one that Roberts himself advanced: “he simply could not invite his golfing friends to play on his course and then decline to play with them.” That may be true, although it seems equally likely that the ultimately unanswerable argument was an economic one: no Jones, no tournament, no club. Once Jones agreed, Roberts left no room for him to change his mind: He sealed the commitment by giving Jones his own paragraph in the announcement he sent to the P.G.A. “Bobby Jones has agreed to make this tournament the one exception to his rule against further participation in tournament golf,” Roberts wrote. “He does this with the thought of helping to establish a new golfing event that is hoped may assume the proportion of an important tournament.”

Jones’s participation was a huge relief as well to the P.G.A., which was suffering the effects of the Depression and hoped that the return of the game’s biggest star would add some luster to the entire tour. The low state of the tour in those days was clearly reflected in the events that constituted it. One official tournament was held on a nine-hole course in an impoverished coal-mining town called Hazard, Kentucky. The sportswriter Herb Graffis, in an official history called The PGA, which was published in 1975, wrote, “The event had been sponsored by an Ohio company that owned the mines there, and the prize money [$5,000] was more than many of the miners would be paid all their lives working underground. The small gallery watched the tournament just as the wail of hymns came from the small church built on a ledge of the hill, where burial services were being held for some miners killed in an explosion. As the mourners silently followed the coffins along the narrow bridge over the river, the golfers stopped complaining about the poor condition of the greens.” Robert Harlow, who was the manager of the P.G.A.’s tournament bureau, suggested to Roberts that he make the most of Jones’s participation by hiring a local sportswriter to supervise publicity for the event. Roberts did him one better by getting Grantland Rice to announce Jones’s return in one of his syndicated newspaper columns.

“It all happened in this fashion,” Rice wrote, exercising considerable dramatic license with the details. ” … When the matter was put up to Bobby Jones he promptly agreed to play, ‘if,’ as he expressed it, ‘I happen to be one of the best fifty or sixty golfers named by the committee. I’ve been out of action so long I may not belong in this group.’ ” Rice—who did not mention in his column that he would be the honorary chairman of the new tournament—went on to portray the contest as a long-awaited rematch between Jones and the rest of the world. (In Rice’s formulation, Jones was both the underdog and the favorite.) “The interesting feature of this 72-hole contest,” he continued, “will be to see just how the record-holding Georgian can stand up after a long absence from the tournament ranks—how the four-year vacation will affect his  game under such heavy fire.”

At the time of the tournament, some people speculated that Jones had decided to play in order to boost his own earning power and that the tournament, in the words of Alan Gould, of the Associated Press, had been partly “calculated to aid some of the eminent Georgian’s business enterprises,” by putting him back in the public eye. That seems unlikely. Jones was keenly interested in his various business dealings, and both he and Spalding stood to gain from the fact that he would be using his own new line of steel-shafted clubs—the first steel-shafted clubs he had ever used in competition—but in his early correspondence with Roberts he sounds genuinely ambivalent about the whole event. He quickly came to love the tournament, and his initial reluctance to participate soon disappeared. But his early letters convey no sense that he pushed the idea forward in order to advance himself or anyone else. 

Bobby Jones Augusta
Bobby Jones gets a club from his caddie at Augusta in the 1940s. Photo: Bettman/Getty Images

The Masters today gives the impression of having existed forever, but in fact it is the youngest of the four majors. The British Open is seventy four-years older, the U.S. Open is thirty-nine years older, and the P.G.A. is eighteen years older. Exactly when the Masters became a major tournament, as opposed to when it was first held, is a matter of debate. Some commentators—among them, the correspondent from Time—moved it immediately to that select list. Some have identified Gene Sarazen’s victory the following year as the pivotal event. Others have claimed that the critical tournament was the last Masters before the wartime hiatus, in 1942, when Byron Nelson beat Ben Hogan by a stroke in an eighteen-hole playoff that is still celebrated as epochal. By 1947, Leonard Crawley, the golf correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph, believed that there were two American majors, the Open and the Masters. Herbert Warren Wind felt that the Masters became a major seven years later, in 1954, when Hogan lost a second monumental playoff, also by a stroke, this time to Sam Snead.

The youngest major tournament is also the oldest modern one. Many key features of professional golf tournaments were introduced in Augusta. Regular tour events in those days were far less well run than even a modern country club’s annual member-guest tournament, and against that background the Masters set a hugely influential example. “Once a spectator had left the clubhouse area and made his way onto the amphitheatrical course below,” Herbert Warren Wind wrote in 1978, “he could stay out watching the golf the whole day. All his needs had been anticipated: There were many refreshment stands (where the prices were kept reasonable), and excellent picnicking grounds were provided, as were lavatories. The Masters was the first golf tournament at which there was room for ten thousand autos to be parked on the club grounds. It was the first tournament that spared spectators from having to lug a bulky program around; daily pairing sheets with a diagram of the course on the reverse side were supplied gratis.” The Masters was the first seventy-two-hole tournament to be scheduled for four days. It was the first tournament played on terrain that was routinely reshaped to provide better sight lines for spectators. It was the first golf tournament to be covered live on nationwide radio. It was the first to use bleachers—which Roberts preferred to call “observation stands.” It was the first to systematically rope galleries and to allow only players, caddies, and officials inside the ropes. It was the first sporting event to employ private detectives to handle ticket sales, security, and other chores (and in doing so it invented what today remains an important business for Pinkerton’s, Inc.). It developed the first on-course scoreboard network, in which scores were gathered over dedicated telephone lines as they occurred. It introduced the now universal over-and-under scoring system, in which the standing of the players is represented not by cumulative totals but by the number of strokes above or below par. Although it was not the first golf tournament to be televised, it has had a larger impact than any other single event on the form, content, and technology of modern golf broadcasts. In innumerable small and large ways, it has helped to establish the high standards and restrained atmosphere that continue to distinguish competitive golf.

For all of that, the great tournament began very modestly. Because the club had several members “who do not wish to be deprived of an opportunity to use the course during four days of the best portion of the winter season,” Roberts wrote in his announcement to the P.G.A., the field would be kept small enough so that no competitive rounds would have to be scheduled for the mornings, when tee times would be reserved for members. Actually, there was never much danger of the field becoming too large. Roberts, Jones, and Rice planned for an event of modest size in part because they weren’t sure how many of their invitations would be accepted. The club, furthermore, didn’t have facilities for a large number of players. The clubhouse was still a mess, and other conveniences were minimal. To ensure that spectators would have enough places to sit, Roberts borrowed sixty-six chairs from two local funeral homes.

The idea of leaving the course open for members during the mornings was later dropped, possibly because of Rice. He pointed out that the fans would have nothing to do until after lunch, at which point most of them would try to follow Jones, thereby causing bottlenecks on the course. The solution, Rice said, was to send the golfers out in two waves, one in the morning and the other in the early afternoon. Jones would play in the first wave, and the fans who followed him would be able to follow someone else when he had finished. This was done. On Saturday, for example, the featured pairing was Jones and Walter Hagen, who teed off at 10:42. (A starting time was left empty before and after, to accommodate the crowds). Scheduled to begin roughly three hours later—the period of time in which two players were expected to comfortably finish eighteen holes in those days—were Leo Diegel and MacDonald Smith, Henry Picard and Al Watrous, Paul Runyan and Willie Macfarlane, and several other celebrity pairings, which could be expected to pick up Jones’s fans as soon as he had dropped them off.

Seventy-two-hole tournaments at the time of the first Masters were invariably scheduled for three days, with a thirty-six-hole final on Saturday—an accommodation to the nation’s blue laws. It was Jones who thought of expanding the schedule. “My idea in stringing out the medal play over four days,” he wrote in a letter to Roberts not long before the tournament, “was to give time for special events to be sandwiched in between.” These events included an optional alternate-shot match, an approach-and-putt contest (to be held on the practice putting green), an iron contest (to be held in the old practice area, which can still be seen between the ninth and eighteenth fairways), and a driving contest.

Roberts liked the four-round idea, in part because it eliminated what he believed to be a disadvantage for players who were “unable to do their best scoring if forced to play thirty-six holes in one day.” He also liked the fact that the schedule would enable the club to sell four days’ worth of tournament round tickets instead of just three. (Tournament round tickets sold for $2.20, including tax; practice round tickets were $1.10; series tickets, good for all week, were $5.50.) Roberts had initially wanted the driving contest and other special events to be scheduled alongside the practice rounds—on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday—partly because he hoped they would increase practice round ticket sales, and partly because he thought a long schedule of activities might make the tournament seem more substantial to local hoteliers and merchants, whose support would be needed both that year and in the future. Roberts loved the special events, and he helped to create many of them. One year, he arranged an exhibition for local children, who were given free practice round tickets; he scheduled the exhibition late in the afternoon so that it would not conflict with school. Another year, he devised a competition in which the pros took turns trying to repeat Sarazen’s double-eagle shot from the fifteenth fairway. (None succeeded.) For the 1942 Masters, he wanted to hold a complex “ringer score contest” in which the seven tournament champions would compete against the rest of the field during the four practice rounds. The contest was never held, but not for lack of support from the chairman. (Among other things, he wrote, the competition would “give the newspaper boys something to write about” during the first half of the week.) According to one spectator from that era, “The contests were fun, because the pros were always so relaxed and having such a good time.”

Jones didn’t like that idea at all. He told Roberts in a letter that too few players would be on hand early in the week to make the special events worthwhile, and he expressed a fear that the tournament was being oversold to the public. He must have been unsettled by the fact that the event, which was still nearly three months away, was being treated in the press—thanks in part to the efforts of his good friends Rice and Keeler (whom the club was paying for his promotional efforts, in golf privileges, accommodations, and cash)—as the Second Coming of Bobby Jones. He didn’t want spectators’ expectations to be raised beyond the point where he and the club would have a realistic chance of meeting them. It was in the same spirit that he objected strenuously to Roberts’s suggestion that the tournament be called the Masters, a name that Jones felt was immodest. Because of Jones’s misgivings, the event for five years was officially called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament, although Roberts’s preferred title was no secret and was picked up from the beginning by the press, the players, and the public. In 1938, Jones himself gave in; the name Masters became official for the tournament in 1939.

An additional source of revenue during the first tournament was an attractively printed program, which also served as an unofficial prospectus for potential members. The program was forty-four pages long and contained a map of the course, descriptions of the holes (written by MacKenzie), photographs of the clubhouse and other points of interest, historical information about the property, photographs of most of the members of the club, and several dozen advertisements. It sold for twenty-five cents. Overrepresented among the advertisers were the club’s numerous creditors, who had been offered space in lieu of payment.

The Masters has always been a tournament to which players are invited. For the first tournament, the decision to send invitations may have been influenced by a fear that too few distinguished players would sign up if they weren’t asked directly. (The tournament was also unusual at that time in that it neither charged an entry fee nor required competitors to qualify—further inducements to play.) In order to build a solid field, Roberts and the other officers of the club tried to contact every player directly “and to look after his individual comfort.”

Invitations to active players are seldom declined nowadays, but that was not true in the beginning. Willie Klein, who was the professional at La Goree Golf Club in Miami Beach, wrote two weeks before the first tournament to say that “it will be impossible for me to get away to play in the Masters Open”—a name that he had picked up not from the invitation but from the newspapers. (In 1950, Roberto de Vicenzo, through his manager, accepted his invitation to compete in “the Annual Teacher’s Competition”—a mistaken retranslation from a Spanish version of his invitation.) Klein explained that his club was having “a fairly good season” and he therefore couldn’t get away. Other pros had similar problems. Olin Dutra, who had won the P.G.A. in 1932 and would win the U.S. Open at Merion later in 1934, declined because he couldn’t take time off from his job at Brentwood Country Club in Los Angeles. “My duties at my home club compel me to remain at home,” he wrote, in a formal style of his own creation, “and you may rest assured that I must and do rescind your kindly invitation with reluctance. My very best wishes go forth at this time for the success of your tournament. Kindly extend my personal regards to Bob Jones Jr. at your convenience.” Dutra’s brother, Mortie, did play; he tied for eleventh and won a hundred dollars.

Gene Sarazen wrote in February that he was “very glad to accept” the invitation, but he backed out shortly before the tournament in order to embark on a series of foreign exhibitions with Joe Kirkwood, an Australian professional, who had also been invited. Sarazen and Kirkwood worked during the winter for the Miami Biltmore Hotel. Kirkwood had once proposed to Sarazen that they travel abroad together, and Sarazen had suggested South America. Kirkwood scheduled their departure for a week before the Augusta National Invitation, and their plans could not be changed. Sarazen deeply regretted missing Jones’s tournament. (He says a caddie in Fiji told him, “We no hear of Mister Sarazen in Fiji, but we hear of Mister Jones.”) He made certain that he would be available for the second Masters.

Leonard Kamsler Augusta National The Masters Gene Sarazen
Gene Sarazen at Augusta. Photo: Leonard Kamsler

In recent years, Sarazen has often said that he skipped the first Masters because the invitation came not from Jones but from Clifford Roberts, whom he had never heard of, “and what the hell do I want to play in a tournament sponsored by a Wall Street broker?”—as he said in a telephone interview in 1997. He has also said that he threw out the first invitation because it had a Wall Street return address and he figured it must be some sort of financial promotion. Those are funny stories, but they aren’t true. The invitations in both 1934 and 1935 came from Alfred Bourne, who was the club’s vice president. On both occasions, Sarazen wrote very nice acceptance letters to Bourne. He withdrew in 1934 only after finding that Kirkwood had already made their South American travel plans and that their departure was going to conflict with the tournament.

Jones arrived in Augusta nine days before the tournament in order to get his game into shape. In his first practice round–which he played with Roberts and two other members-he shot 71. (During an earlier visit, he had shot 65.) The Augusta Chronicle reported that his score would have been lower except for “excessive grass” on the greens. “This condition,” the Chronicle explained, “resulted from [the] decision of the keeper to mow it gradually so as to have the greens in perfect shape for the tournament.” Jones’s score may also have been affected by the absence of Calamity Jane, his legendary putter, which he had donated to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews. (After two rounds in the tournament, he sent home for an old putter of his mother’s, and putted better with that.)

Despite pronounced putting problems, Jones remained at or near the top of almost everyone’s list of favorites—until Thursday afternoon. “So there you are,” Keeler wrote in the Atlanta Journal, “and there was Bobby Jones, playing the first round with Paul Runyan before a simply magnificent gallery, and working steadily and hard, and bearing down at all times, and employing all the craft gained in fifteen years of major league campaigning—and betrayed by his putting and flaccid work about the greens into a 76 which ordinarily should have been a round in par or better.” He followed his 76 with 74, leaving himself eight strokes behind Horton Smith, the eventual winner. He finished with two rounds of even par and ended up in a respectable tie for thirteenth (along with Hagen and Denny Shute, who had won the British Open the year before). The first cut at the Masters was imposed in 1957, after thirty-six holes. Ben Hogan, Gene Littler, and Moe Norman were among nine players who missed it by a stroke.

Jones had never been a factor, and by the end of the tournament he was reasonably sure that he would never contend in a tournament again. But perhaps he was pleasantly surprised to discover that his fans didn’t seem to mind, and that his gallery on the last day was larger than his gallery on the first. He had been embarrassed initially by the state of his short game, but by the time he finished on Sunday he was already looking forward to playing again the following year. Twenty-five years later, he was able to write, “Even though some of my playing experiences in the tournament have not been altogether rewarding, at this point I have no hesitancy in saying that the Masters Tournament has provided one of the most truly wonderful aspects of my life with the associations and excitement it has brought and with the satisfaction we have felt in the development of the tournament and the golf course.”

Up until his death two and a half months before the tournament, Alister MacKenzie had been hoping to be on hand in Augusta. He had told Roberts that if he could somehow come up with round-trip train fare he would be happy to camp out in the clubhouse—truly roughing it, given the condition of the building at that time. After he died, his widow, Hilda, wrote to Roberts to wish him luck with the tournament, concluding, “I know you will all wish Alister were there.” A couple of weeks after the tournament, Roberts wrote to Hilda with a report. “The Tournament was really a great success,” he wrote, “despite cold weather and despite Bob’s bad putting. We have definitely decided to hold this tournament as a regular annual event, provided, of course that we are able to hold this club together. I might mention in this regard that we were able to secure some eighteen or twenty new members and that we were likewise able to show a small net profit from the tournament. All in all, the Club now has a better chance of being a success.” He added that he hoped to be able to send her some money soon.

Roberts’s cheerful description of the tournament’s financial results did not quite jibe with the actual accounting. The club had sold $8,011 worth of tickets. That was an excellent showing by the standards of the day—attendance had been comparable to that of the most recent U.S. Open–but the sum did not cover all the costs. One of Roberts’s innovations (suggested by Jay R. Monroe, a member from New Jersey, who had served as the tournament’s “advisory chairman”) had been to use paid workers instead of volunteers for most tournament chores—a practice that the club continues to this day. (In 1998, the Masters Tournament employed more than two thousand paid workers and approximately one thousand volunteers.) Doing so gave Roberts and Monroe better control over their workforce but added to the expense. The course, the clubhouse, and the grounds had required numerous expenditures (among them, $90 for two new bunkers, $50 for a pond, $115 for grass seed for the greens, and more than $500 for fertilizer and fungicide), and the club had had to make an initial investment in scoreboards, signs, manila rope, trash barrels, furniture, rest rooms, and other infrastructure. Through a formal loan set up at Citizens & Southern National Bank, the club had borrowed $1,500 from six members in order to buy rye grass seed for the fairways. The city of Augusta, at the request of Mayor Barrett, had appropriated $10,000 to help defray expenses, but the tournament still finished in the red. (Roberts spent the bulk of the city’s appropriation on the course; the city made appropriations of $7,500 in each of the following two years but held back a third of the money to cover the club’s unpaid water bills.) The tournament in those days paid just the top twelve finishers—first prize was $1,500, and twelfth was $100—but even with that small purse Roberts had to pass the hat among the membership before he could hand out any of the prizes. Most important of all, Roberts believed that any unspent revenues from the tournament should be reinvested in the course or in new amenities for spectators and players.

The tournament’s real contribution to the club’s financial health came not from ticket sales but from memberships. The “eighteen or twenty new members” whom Roberts had mentioned produced more than $6,000 in new initiation fees along with a twenty-five percent increase in annual income from dues. With that infusion of cash, Roberts was able to send a year’s interest to the club’s creditors, pay down five percent of the mortgage balance, and set aside a fund to cover the club’s pared-down operating costs for one more year. Despite the marginal financial results, Roberts was now convinced that the Masters held the key to the club’s success or failure. Jones’s tournament had given both the club and the course an allure that Jones’s name alone had not. The Depression was now more than four years old and surely couldn’t continue much longer. For the first time in a long time, Roberts began to feel reasonably optimistic about the future.

It was a feeling that would not last.

In 1976, while discussing the early years of Augusta National, Roberts said that Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle in the second tournament had “put the Masters in business.” Sarazen in 1935 was considered by most to be the best golfer in the world, and his miraculous victory over Craig Wood gave the club a huge wave of publicity at a time when things looked very dark for both it and the tournament. (Among the spectators at the tournament in 1935 was Hootie Johnson, who today is the chairman of the club. He was accompanied by his mother, who had decided to go, he says, “as a novelty.” He was four years old.) But the effect of Sarazen’s victory, while real, was less immediately dramatic than Roberts suggested forty-one years later. Ticket sales had been down in 1935, and they were down again in 1936. What really put the Masters in business was the resurgent economy and sudden interest in golf that followed the end of the Second World War. Sarazen’s contribution was to help keep the tournament and the club from collapsing before good times returned.

A telling measure of the fragility of the Masters during those years is the steadily decreasing size of the field. Seventy-two players competed in 1934, sixty-five in 1935, fifty-two in 1936, forty-six in 1937, forty-two in 1938, and forty-six in 1939 (the year the tournament was first officially called the Masters). The pool of players receiving invitations was not shrinking in those years; in fact, it was growing substantially. In both 1936 and 1938, the club made significant additions to the list of automatic qualifications—adding, among others, the first thirty finishers from the U.S. Open, the top two players from the P.G.A.’s winter circuit, and the finalists, semifinalists, and quarterfinalists from the most recent P.G.A. Championship. But the acceptance rate dwindled steadily, and by the end of the decade the tournament was just two-thirds its original size.

The decline in the field partly reflected golf’s tenuousness as a profession during the years following the Crash, and partly reflected challenges that were unique to the club. Only a very few players in those days won enough money on tour to cover even their travel expenses. The purse for the Masters didn’t increase until 1946, the first year after the war, and cash prizes continued to be awarded only through twelfth place. For more than a few golfers who might otherwise have entered, a trip to Augusta was a costly luxury that offered little prospect of a payoff at the end. Once the excitement of Jones’s return had faded, fewer players chose to bear the expense of accepting an invitation, and the club had to confront many of the same grim considerations that had led the U.S.G.A. not to hold the Open at Augusta in 1934. Despite the appeal of Jones and Sarazen, the Masters was still a small tournament at a small club in an out-of-the-way city at an inconvenient time of the year.

The expense of conducting the tournament, though relatively modest in dollar terms, exacerbated Augusta National’s general financial difficulties, and at the end of 1935 the club, under pressure from its bankers, took a drastic step. For some time, several of the people who had helped to initiate and finance the project had been telling Roberts that the club should declare bankruptcy. As Roberts wrote in a letter in 1934, “Colonel Jones and others were advocating that we turn the property over to the first mortgage bond holders, and then reorganize by giving all our members a new share of stock in a new Company.” That sentence is in the past tense because it was written shortly after the first tournament, and at that time Roberts believed that the danger had passed. But a little over eighteen months later, the club did exactly what the Colonel had recommended. In a letter to the club’s “underwriters and creditors” late in 1935, the club’s attorney explained that “the holders of the bonds of the Fruitland Manor Corporation, through the Georgia Railroad Bank & Trust Company, as Trustee for the Bondholders, exercised their right of foreclosure and brought the entire property of the Fruitland Manor Corporation to sale under the powers contained in the trust mortgage.” The bank for some time had been pressuring the club, which was more than a year delinquent in making interest payments. After the foreclosure, the bondholders bought all the assets of both the old club and the land company, and reconstituted themselves as Augusta National, Inc. (Curt Sampson, in The Masters, wrote that “Cliff and the others may have realized they’d blundered royally by failing to incorporate from the start. Under the loose partnership used to found and build the club, Roberts, Jones and the rest could each have been sued for debts or for hospital bills and lost income from a mule kick or a shovel accident. The beauty of a corporation, of course, is that none of its owners bears any personal liability.” This passage, like many others in Sampson’s book, is unrelated to the facts. The old club (along with the new club and the old Fruitland Manor Corporation) had been not “a loose partnership” but a legally chartered corporation.) The purpose of this maneuver was to preserve the investment of the bank–which held the $60,000 first mortgage—by protecting the club from roughly $25,000 in construction-related debts (among them, the unpaid balance of the charges by Olmsted Bros.) and from the vastly larger unmet obligation represented by the original underwriting. The bank’s only chance of being repaid was to keep the club in operation until better times returned.

As Roberts planned for the third Masters, the club’s financial condition must have increased his conviction that the tournament was essential. What other hope was there? The tournament had given the club a national reputation, and it was the only significant variable in the equation. Many years later, Roberts said that the hospitality for which the Masters is legendary had been the product of necessity. To sell enough tickets to cover costs, the club had to pamper spectators. The price had to be low, the food had to be good, the views had to be unobstructed, the course had to be perfect, the bathrooms had to be clean. Roberts built the Masters in the same way successful entrepreneurs have always built businesses: by focusing on the needs of his customers.

In his quest for improvement, Roberts accepted suggestions from every quarter, and he did so with an enthusiasm that belies his reputation as an autocrat. Many of the tournament’s amenities were suggested by outsiders, whose letters Roberts not only welcomed but often answered in detail. In 1956, for example, a spectator wrote to complain that the club’s on-course scoreboards—a Masters innovation—were impossible to read while attendants were updating the scores; why not use the type found in ballparks, on which scores were adjusted from behind? Roberts liked the idea and immediately replaced all the existing scoreboards. The following year, he explained his thoughts about innovation in a lengthy letter to a spectator who had written to protest the tournament’s imposition of a cut. “Any time our studies indicate that the present policies can be improved, we will be quick to act,” he wrote. “And please believe me when I say that letters such as the one you wrote are very helpful. Many of the changes adopted in the past were suggested by our loyal and keenly interested patrons.” Roberts always referred to spectators as patrons, a term that perfectly expressed his conception of the relationship between ticket buyers and the tournament they financed. Few recommendations from patrons or others were automatically dismissed as outlandish. For more than a year, Roberts considered the possibility of assigning to each twosome a scorekeeper who would wear a large hat that would serve as “a device which would show scores.” In 1961, an executive of a fire hydrant manufacturing company in Birmingham, Alabama, suggested that the television broadcast of the tournament be shown on closed-circuit TV sets situated on the course itself, to make it easier for spectators to follow the action of the more popular players—an idea that Roberts liked and implemented, although the images on the screens were hard to see outdoors. In 1970, Roberts received a letter suggesting that the tournament’s runner-up be awarded a green vest, and another suggesting that all competitors be required to wear “a green knitted shirt, stockings, and knickers.” Roberts responded with gracious letters in which he politely deflected both ideas.

Roberts’s obsession with detail helped to create an extraordinarily agreeable experience for the small group of people who in those years encountered the tournament at first hand, whether as spectators, competitors, or correspondents. The sportswriter Herbert Warren Wind didn’t attend his first Masters until 1947—when the tournament had grown far beyond what it had been before the war—but the scene he later recalled evokes the earlier period as well. “It was the prettiest course I had ever seen,” he wrote in The New Yorker in 1984. “In those days, its Bermuda-grass fairways were overseeded with an Italian rye grass that gleamed a lovely shade of green in the sun …. There couldn’t have been more than two thousand people on the course on Thursday and Friday. On Sunday, five thousand at the most were on hand for the final round. It was a treat to be there …. [T]he players were courteous and approachable. The spectators knew their golf. The pimiento sandwiches at the refreshment stands were fresh and exotic. The clubhouse, an elegant ante-helium manor house wrapped in wisteria, overlooked the course, and let you know you were in the Deep South as explicitly as did the mockingbirds’ song and the abundant flora.”

People sometimes laughed in later years when Roberts worried that slow play might drive away his beloved patrons, or that lifting a regional television blackout might hurt ticket sales, or that the sudden appearance on camera of a crumpled paper cup might lead a television viewer to conclude that golf was a game unworthy of respect. But his anxieties were honestly earned, and his perfectionism was deeply rooted in his character. Virtually all the major events of his life—the traumatic moves, the debts, the fire, the suicide of his mother, the Crash—had taught him that success is ephemeral, that happiness and security can evaporate at any moment, and that good things happen only through unremitting effort and imperviousness to repeated failure. The Depression hit him hard, but for him it was nothing new: It was just the most recent confirmation of his lifelong experience of the way the world worked. At the time of the first Masters, he was forty years old and had never known an extended period of certainty, stability, or prosperity. His youth had been punctuated by dislocation and tragedy. His education had been sacrificed to the needs of his family. His career in business had stalled, soared, and stalled again. He had gotten the club under way only to see it continually threatened by dissolution. It should not seem surprising that he now managed the tournament with the same focused sense of purpose that had carried him through the first four difficult decades of his life.